Restaurant Leaders: We Must Be Part of the Solution

    In the wake of George Floyd's death, industry executives express outrage, call to action.

    Exterior of a Burger King restaurant.
    Restaurant Brands International
    "Diversity was very intentionally chosen as one of our core values because we believe that a variety of voices and perspectives make us stronger,” Restaurant Brands International CEO Jose Cil said.

    Like countless leaders in industries across America, restaurant executives have struggled to articulate recent events. The death of George Floyd laid bare issues employers historically and staunchly avoid at the water cooler. As Edible president Cheikh Mboup told QSR, “Usually, in offices, there’s this unwritten rule of don’t talk about politics and race and religion.”

    But the 1,100-unit company put that all aside. So have organizations throughout foodservice.

    Jose Cil, the CEO of Restaurant Brands International, wrote a letter to employees saying he’s “struggled to gather and express my personal feelings.”

    Cil grew up in Miami and recalls when residents set fire to neighborhoods in 1980 after four police officers were acquitted for manslaughter in the death of Arthur McDuffie. “That was 40 years ago—and yet here we still are, in this great country, facing similar issues,” Cil said. “I am deeply saddened. I am incredibly frustrated.”

    RBI worked toward improving diversity and inclusion in the last year, he added. Just this week at its offsite, the Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons parent company blocked time to dive into racial issues and, more importantly, Cil said, figure out what RBI is going to do about it.

    “It’s on us to make sure we’re living our values and doing everything we can to support equality—in our company, in our restaurants, and in our franchise community,” he said.

    Cil acknowledged another reality. This issue shares a multi-month, unprecedented crisis as company. COVID-19 didn’t vanish over the weekend. The truth is, it’s going to make these corporate and culture changes even harder to enact.

    “While being apart makes processing, grieving, and reacting to this more challenging, I want you all to know you’re supported,” Cil told employees. RBI offers an assistance program to workers and their family members. “Sometimes, talking to someone helps,” Cil said.

    “Diversity was very intentionally chosen as one of our core values because we believe that a variety of voices and perspectives make us stronger,” he added. “We want to hear from [employees] and will create more room for dialogue … and ways to create a future we’re all proud of.”

    David Gibbs, the CEO of Yum! Brands, echoed many of Cil’s thoughts. He said in a LinkedIn article the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, “made it clear that inequality and injustice in the United States runs deep, and, when unaddressed, threaten the stability of our society.”

    “Witnessing the outrage across our nation and the events over the past few weeks, I think of our 1.5 million frontline restaurant employees at KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and The Habit Burger Grill, especially those in our headquarter city of Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna was killed,” Gibbs said. “Many of our team members around the globe are people of color who are navigating life’s challenges in the face of consistent bias and inequality, and this daily experience is now compounded by a global pandemic.”

    He added Yum! would invest “significantly” more time, talent, and resources to be a greater force for change and equality for frontline restaurant employees, and in the communities where it operates.

    Gibbs said Yum! stands “with African Americans and all people of color, unified against all forms of racism, gender bias, discrimination, hate and intolerance. Especially at this time, we remain committed to ensuring a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for our customers to enjoy and for employees to thrive. Yum! Brands’ core value of Believing in ALL People has never been more important.”

    Like Cil, he noted change will begin with communication, and ensuring Yum! has a diverse set of leaders and voices at the table. “To be clear—there is no easy answer or solution, but there is also no path forward without more listening, more understanding, and more action,” he said.

    Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor shared a message Monday with employees and guests as well. He called the killing of Floyd “another death in a pattern of despicable events that have happened far too often.”

    “For all who respect life and value equality, we hope that there will soon come a calming to the unrest that so many communities are experiencing today,” he said. “At the same time, we understand the outrage and raise our voices to say that enough is enough. We can’t achieve change on our own, but we do need to be part of the solution.”

    Penegor admitted he didn’t grow up around a lot of racial diversity.

    “My family and I spent the weekend talking and are appalled by the loss of George Floyd and the larger societal challenges that face us. I also recognize that my family and I possess a privilege due to the color of our skin that people of color do not have,” he said. “While we empathize and grieve with our black neighbors, we also know that we do not walk in the same shoes. What my family can do, and what all of us in the Wendy’s family will do, is to advocate for a future of equality and safety.”

    Wendy’s will hold a leadership meeting this week to discuss becoming better advocates for change and to find its role in the healing that’s still to come, Penegor said. “As I grew in my business career, I have seen how diversity makes us all stronger, both as a society and a business community,” he added.

    “We do not have answers for unraveling centuries of racial bias and oppression. What we can do is not remain silent and state clearly that bigotry has no place in our community.”

    On May 29, Starbucks called for an employee forum and opened it to any workers who felt compelled to join the conversation around the deaths and “many other racial injustices that have shaken the entire country and each one of us,” CEO Kevin Johnson wrote in a letter.

    Roughly 2,000 employees, many accompanied by family members, showed up to the virtual event.

    During the 90-minute forum, Starbucks’ global chief inclusion and diversity officer, Zing Shaw, stressed the importance of listening to each other and understanding change in an active choice.

    Johnson also shared an anecdote from program manager Shaun Spearmon. As a black man, “he lives with the reality that far too many in the world don’t value his life, something he had to learn as a child—and something he worries about every day as he raises a young son. ‘I’m terrified his experience will be like mine,’ he said,” Johnson wrote.

    “We must remain optimistic,” Zing added. “We must be honest about the situation and be open to listen and learn. We must be willing to take positive steps forward. That’s what I think we are doing by having this session.”

    Shake Shack posted a black background image on social media Tuesday under “Black Lives Matter #blackouttuesday, and said previously if it could use its platform to be a voice in “this critical dialogue, we will.” The company then linked to a document with anti-racism resources.

    “It’s hard to know the right thing to say, but remaining silent is dangerous. Shake Shack always has and always will Stand For Something Good. That means celebrating diversity, championing inclusion and standing up against injustice,” the company said.

    Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison Monday penned a message to employees and brand partners and then challenged “all leaders to encourage and facilitate authentic, transparent conversations in their organizations.”

    “The senseless murder of George Floyd and countless others reflect the social injustice and racial prejudice that inexcusably continue to exist,” Morrison said. “These acts of violence and the blatant disregard for basic humanity and human rights do not have a place in our country or world, and certainty not at Wingstop.”

    “This is not about headlines,” he continued. “This is about our role as a global brand and doing what is right. We cannot stand idly by and be complacent in this disregard for humanity.”

    On Friday, Wingstop held its weekly restaurant support center virtual Zoom call. Like Starbucks, it turned the event into an open forum. “It was raw, emotional, powerful, and authentic in every sense of the word,” Morrison said.

    “I start by asking you, as leaders in your own organizations, to initiate conversations with your team members if you have not already. This can be as simple as asking the question, ‘how are you doing?’ or ‘how are you feeling’ about the climate of social injustice present today. Our team members’ voices are critical as we navigate a path forward.”

    Wingstop is bringing employees together to form a task force and inform a go-forward plan centered around action and accountability long term.

    “I don’t have all the answers,” Morrison said, “but I can tell you that the steps we take forward will be anchored back to who we are at our core.”

    Paul Brown, the CEO of Inspire Brands, which directs Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic Drive-In, Jimmy John’s, and fast casual Rusty Taco, said in a letter the violence of recent days impacted a number of the company’s corporate and franchised-owned restaurants, and “was especially tough on our restaurant team members who were on the frontlines as the attacks were unfolding.”

    Inspire closed many of its restaurants and sent employees home early as a precaution. Nobody was injured, Brown said. Inspire employs roughly 300,000 people.

    “If anything, this is an opportunity for us to demonstrate to ourselves and to others that we strive to live our values every day and in all circumstances. We can show that we are a respectful and open place treating all people with dignity and respect,” Brown said.

    McDonald’s U.S president Joe Erlinger noted over the weekend McDonald’s would provide opportunities moving forward “to discuss these issues and our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

    “… our actions matter, and so we must recommit to our shared values of diversity and inclusion,” he said. “At McDonald’s, our doors are open to everyone, and we exclude nobody.”